Death and the City

Posted by Monica Germana on April 27, 2010 in Dr Monica Germana, Guest Blog tagged with




I am just back from attending the Urban Gothic Conference at Liverpool John Moore University on Saturday 24 April. The conference programme promised an interesting debate on a range of Gothic topics in relation to the city as haunted space, uncanny homelessness, postmodern and historical palimpsests and disturbed suburbia, amongst others; under the auspices of a beautiful (if not exactly Gothic), sunny day, the event unravelled as a great interdisciplinary forum, which exceeded my expectations and made the Saturday morning early rise more than worthwhile: accompanying the panels and keynote addresses were also a reading by novelist Nicholas Royle and the book launch of Sara Wasson’s Urban Gothic of the Second World War (Palgrave).

What emerged from the panels I attended was a shared sense of problematic belonging and identity, deriving from perceptions of the city as labyrinthine space, which threatens to swallow, or at least, blend in with an autonomous sense of self: such coalescent permeability between the soul of the city and the individual’s being surfaces in the work of graphic designer and writer Gerry Gapinsky’s whose work in progress Three Colours Black aims to produce a trilogy of urban narratives starting from Edinburgh, moving on to Glasgow and New York, reversing the journey that has led the American-born artist to Edinburgh. The fast sequence of photomontage images shows the cityspace of Edinburgh as a dark, fragmented space. As the artist explained, Edinburgh is a schizoid place, still affected by the Old/New Town dichotomy of its topography, as well as by its unique, layered space, which, visually, develops along a vertical dimension: in relative terms, the aesthetic responses to highrise buildings of medieval Edinburgh, he noted, must have resembled contemporary impressions of the vertiginous skyscrapers in modern-day Manhattan. Thus Edinburgh embodies simultaneously the high peaks of a sublime urban space and the dark recesses of the deepest, subconscious nightmares.


Contemporary and imagined city spaces were the focus of the panel on postmodern spaces. Emily Horton (Brunel University) gave an insightful reading of Ali Smith’s Hotel World and Trezza Attopardi’s Remember, discussing homelessness as a symptom of cultural and political displacement of postmillennial Gothic. In her comparison of the corporate alienation of the big city and the provincial marginalisation of a small town, Horton points out how the progressive encroachment upon the public spaces of the modern city homelessness denounces the disturbing phenomenon of social invisibility.

In the same panel, Catherine Spooner’s paper brought together the postmodernist parodies of Paul Magrs’s ‘Brenda novels’ (Never the Bride, Something Borrowed, Conjugal Rites and Hell’s Belles) in relation to the locations of Gothic tourism and, in particular, Whitby. Drawing attention to the tourism subtext in Stoker’s Dracula – both Jonathan Harker’s journey to Transylvania and Mina’s trip to Whitby can be read in terms of tourism – Spooner highlights how vulgar tourism (associated with the collection of recipes and souvenirs, for instance) and genteel tourism (associated with history, architecture and artwork) coexist in the commodification of Whitby as touristic resort. The exploitation of Gothic motifs for touristic purposes, however, opens a gap between the used images and their original meaning, a manifestation of Baudrilliardian ‘procession of simulacra’, as Spooner noted. The Carnivalesque space of Paul Magrs’s novels, which, rather than on its consumers, focus on the those who work in the tourist industry, accelerates, in a sense, the pace of this counterfeiting process, rapidly pointing to a notion of ‘post-tourism’: a kind of journeying that never leads to an authentic experience of place. Simultaneously, however, the playful humour of parody proposes a message that subverts Gothic discourse: rather than death and trauma, Gothic locates (for a change) celebration.

Ben Highmore’s keynote address travelled back to the past to evoke the Gothic urbanism of visual representations in postwar cinema, which included Robert Vas’s Refuge England (1959) and Lorenza Mazzetti’s Together. The question addressed by his analysis and the images used to support it reflected on the aesthetic dilemmas posed by a world that has already realised its own nightmares: references to topographic voids left by the nuclear explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and, more recently, the aerial attack on the Twin Towers helped to unveil the surreal spectralism and traumatic displacement of some of our aesthetic responses to mass destruction.

An older version of London’s East End explored in Mazzetti’s film was the focus of the panel discussion of Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell, which started off with Laura Hilton’s analysis of the historical aspects of Moore and Eddie Campbell’s reconstruction. The paper made strong links between the realist depictions, supported by the historical research undertaken by Eddie Campbell to recreate accurate illustrations to support Moore’s story-line, and the Gothic aesthetic that underpins the representation of London as labyrinthine, fragmented and dark. But London, in From Hell, is also that of the affluent West End, the glorious centre of the British Empire, a place that can repress the knowledge of the events taking place in the poorest quarters of Whitechapel to live the dream and the illusion of the metropolitan utopia.

History is inevitably written in and on the city. Taking her cue from her reading of Patrick McGrath’s Spider, ‘The angel’, and ‘Ground Zero’ (Ghost Town), Sue Zlosnik reflected on the ambivalent function of certain kinds of topography. Ruins, she argued, are not sufficient foundations of Gothic ontology. In fact, as Zlosnik pointed out in her keynote address, no place is Gothic per se. It is the deferred realms of representation and textuality, along with conventions, that produce the complex aesthetic and ontology of Gothic.

Yet one could conclude by saying that Gothic is created by a narrative, the city – and, in particular, its monstrously magnified version found in the metropolis – encourages a Gothic reading of its space: its buildings may be suggestive of sublime responses, its dead-ends of claustrophobic fears, its mysterious topography of cryptic uncertainty. In his study of the origins of the city, Richard Lehan discusses the significant function of the worship of the dead in relation to the transition from nomadic to residential modes of living. In a sense, then, death belongs in the city from the start. Or rather, the city starts with death. As haunted space, the city accommodates the Gothic on many levels. On one hand, the city is haunted by its own past, often rich with crime and violence dictated by the density of population of urbanised areas; in this respect contemporary London, particularly in the readings of the metropolis offered by Iain Sinclair’s work, and particularly Lud Heat and White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings and Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor is haunted by the historical ghosts of its own rich crime history: the iconic Whitechapel Murders, epitomised by the infamous Jack the Ripper emerge as links of a long – and ongoing – chain of violent crimes in the city. In such psychogeographical approaches to the city, layers of particular kinds of death make up the metropolitan palimpsest of the city, creating a narrative of important symbols and (occult) meanings, supported by the proximity of certain ‘hotspots’: magical locations, in both Sinclair’s and Ackroyd’s visions, include, for instance the six churches built by Nicholas Hawksmoor in the eighteenth century. As Dana Arnold reminds us, the city ‘is a text’ (p. xix).

Haunted by its own past, rather than text the city resembles textual tradition; the city is archival, collecting, gathering and preserving its own history, whilst, at the same time, making room for the new. The archive, as Michel Foucault reminds us, is an instance of the heterotopic within the normative space of the ordinary world:

‘in a society like ours heterotopias and heterochronies are structured and distributed in a relatively complex fashion. First of all, there are heterotopias of indefinitely accumulating time, for example museums and libraries, Museums and libraries have become heterotopias in which time never stops building up and topping its own summit.’

As heterotopia, the city establishes more distinct links with the Gothic. As Fred Botting has suggested, ‘Gothic remains ambivalent and heterotopic, reflecting the doubleness of the relationship between present and past (12). The city incorporates many of the spaces that Foucault loosely categorises as other spaces, such as brothels, theatres, barracks and cemeteries: in their different ways, these spaces exist somehow outside normativity and, as the case may be, outside the law.

But there are other, I feel, more significant subcultural layers of subversion that belong in the city: graffiti, squats, and even – in a post-smoking ban world – unauthorised smoking zones embody pockets of chaos within the increasingly regulated panopticon of the urban space. One of them, and with this I will draw this blog to an end, is the evocative appearance of ghost bikes: these are old bikes stripped of all accessories; reduced to skeletal frames, their spectral symbolism is accentuated by a coat of white paint. They are chained to railings to commemorate the death of a cyclist. Aesthetically their whiteness will make them standout against the dark greyness of their urban surroundings. Their disruptive presence breaks the chain of rational order signified by the railings they are attached to, barriers, which, paradoxically, symbolise the necessity for protection and, simultaneously, the fragility of our metropolitan lives.


Richard Lehan, The City in Literature: An Intellectual and Cultural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998)

Fred Botting, ‘In Gothic Darkly: Heterotopia, History and Culture’, in A Companion to the Gothic, edited by David Punter (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001) pp. 3-14.

Michel Foucault, ‘Heterotopias’ (1967)



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